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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Uzbekistan Update

Life here in Tashkent is strange.  Inside the walls of our gate, life marches on in its usual progression of days.  We all wake up every morning at our usual time.  Brandon and I exercise while Sophia and Kathleen practice their piano.  Edwin and Joseph cook breakfast, and then we all eat together while Brandon reads scriptures.  After morning chores, everyone heads down to the basement for school.  But instead of Brandon heading to the embassy, he heads upstairs to the computer to telework.  

The eight of us continue our day as it has always been - school, lunch, naps, Russian, laundry, outside play time - and at five Brandon finishes work.  He comes down from upstairs to help with dinner, and we all have are usual quiet evenings together.  

Up until this week, Tashkent hasn't looked terribly different than normal.  But at the beginning of the week, the Uzbek government shut down all places of public gathering - restaurants, malls, salons - and by mid-week everyone was required to wear masks in public.  By Friday all non-essential stores were shut down, and today all private cars were banned from the road.

Our piano teacher was the first to leave us.  When the embassy evacuated those who wanted to leave, she was on the plane with her family.  Our Thursday afternoons got quieter.  

Next was the milk lady, who didn't show up on Wednesday.  We had heard that the roads in and out of Tashkent had been closed on Tuesday, so I imagine she got caught out of town with jugs full of fresh milk.  We don't have her phone number, so we don't know.

The ban on private cars has now deprived us of our housekeeper, pool guy, and horseback riding lessons all in one go.  Our Russian lessons will continue, but via Zoom.  

When I think of all nine of us, locked up behind our wall, I think of the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Grandpa Joe is telling Charlie about Willy Wonka's chocolate factory being shut up.  "But nobody's gone in!  The gates are locked!  It's crazy!  Nobody ever comes out, either!"

A friend and I were talking earlier about trying to figure out how things will go in this crazy new paradigm.  Who knew back in January that March would find us all huddled in our houses, with whole countries shutting down?  Where will April find us?  How about May?  There's no way for anyone to know, and everyone is left making wild guesses based on a very short timeline of facts.

I do know that one day the gates will open again, the cars will resume their flow, and our house will be filled again with comings and goings.  Lessons will resume, friends will return, life will start to look similar to what it was before.  This time will become, as all times become, a memory.  But for now, we are all holding our breath, wondering when the exhale will come.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Riding it Out

Friday evening, Uzbek Air flew the first ever direct Tashkent to Washington flight.  On it were about seventy friends, colleagues, and associates from the US Embassy in Tashkent.  As I said goodbye to friends, I waved to them from a safe distance, with vague hopes for seeing each other 'soon,' but no firm idea of what soon actually meant.

I've done an evacuation before so I know what they were going through as they threw things into suitcases, not knowing when or if they would return to Tashkent, not knowing where they would stay when they got to the US, not knowing when or if they would see friends again, sometimes not even knowing when they would see their family again.  I don't envy them.

The first case of COVID-19 in Uzbekistan was reported last Saturday.  By Sunday the government had decided to shut down all borders and halt all flights in and out of Uzbekistan. 

In the State Department, there are two types of evacuations.  In an authorized departure, non-essential personnel and all family members are allowed to leave the host country if they want to.  In an ordered departure, all non-essential personnel and family members are required to leave the host country and return to the US. 

Sunday evening, after we had finished playing Catan Junior and were eating our mint brownies, I got an email on my phone. The DCM, the second in command at the embassy, informed everyone of the border closures and cessation of flights.  Then he let us all know that Tashkent had requested an ordered departure.

We all looked at each other, stunned.  The first response was from Kathleen, "But we just filled the pool!  I don't want to leave!!"  I couldn't help but agree with her.  Immediately my mind went to planning mode as I started looking for places to live and cars to buy.  Brandon and I debated whether it would be better for me to stay in North Carolina while he went to DC or to try and find somewhere that could accommodate all nine of us for an indefinite stay. 

I couldn't concentrate on any one thing as I thought of the packing and dislocation and disruption and uncertainty.  As the evening grew longer, I grew more and more frantic with stress and dread.  As I tried to sleep, various scenarios kept churning through my mind, keeping me awake despite the exhaustion from my time in the hospital with Elizabeth only a few days before.  Around midnight, I checked my phone and found a new email.  DC had not approved the ordered departure.  I woke Brandon with the news and finally was able to fall asleep.

Monday there was a town hall for everyone at the embassy where they discussed the situation in Uzbekistan.  DC had just approved a worldwide authorized departure for anyone who is put at risk by their medical situation, including those who have less optimal local medical resources.  Anyone who would like to leave would be able to go.

Brandon and I had already discussed the possibility of an authorized departure and had decided that we would stay if we could.  With our large family, finding housing would be very difficult, and we would have to buy a car (for the second time in six months).  We have only been back and settled for four months, and I just couldn't handle having to up and leave again. 

Our situation in Tashkent is very stable.  Our house is safe, large, and filled with our consumables.  The children and I already spend most days home and we have very limited contact with anyone outside our family.  Everyone is in good health and nobody has any underlying medical conditions that would cause problems.  For us, staying was the best option. 

As the week wore on and the discussions about staying or going were resolved for each family, a special Uzbek Air flight was arranged, affairs were put in order and suitcases packed, I only felt relief at being untouched by the drama.  And when the final flurry of pictures and announcements were posted to group chats, I was so incredibly glad to be safely staying at home. 

So now we are in Uzbekistan for the duration of the corona virus crisis, however long it lasts.  There are no flights in or out for the foreseeable future and I am often reminded of Gandalf's reading of the dwarfs' end in the Mines of Moria, "We cannot get out.  We cannot get out."

In future days when we are swapping stories of COVID-19, I will always remember our posting in Tashkent.  Inevitably someone will ask why we chose to stay in Central Asia during such uncertain times.  By then we'll know the end of this story, whether it was a good decision or a poor one.  The uncertainty and stress will have faded with time, and everything will be neatly laid out with a happy ending to finish the story with.  I'll pause and try to remember why it was that we so desperately wanted to stay out in the wilds when so many others fled for the safety of home.  Then I'll shrug and reply with a smile, "We had a pool.  What other reason did we need?"

Sunday, March 15, 2020


We have all been trading colds for the past month.  Many friends traveled over Christmas break and everyone brought back sicknesses, including a nasty cold that has made its way through the school and embassy.  I've been watching as each of the children have fallen prey to it, with Brandon even spending a night with William who would wake himself up coughing and then start screaming and crying. 

So it was no surprise when Elizabeth woke up Wednesday morning with a stuffy nose and a cough.  When everyone in your house gets sick, it's an inevitability that you will also get sick.  By Thursday morning, however, the cough had turned into wheezing.

I've had a lot of children with colds and don't have a tendency to not panic about minor sicknesses.  Part of it is laziness and part is an unreasonable dislike of being told to go home because I'm overreacting.  But as I listened to Elizabeth's breathing and counted her breathing rate (thank you, internet sites for helpful information), I realized that this was not just a normal baby cold. 

I called the health unit, told them that Elizabeth was having trouble breathing, and then told them to expect me shortly.  The nurse and PA also counted Elizabeth's breathing, listened to her lungs, watched her labor to breathe, and checked her oxygen saturation levels.  After a few breathing treatments with albuterol and no measurable improvement, it was time to move on to the next step.

Under normal circumstances, a case of RSV would have been sent to London with its pediatric ICUs, but these days most countries aren't that interested in people with respiratory distress coming in for medical treatment.  So instead we were left with the options available in Tashkent.

Thankfully there is at least one private hospital in town, and soon Elizabeth, the PA, the nurse, a canister of oxygen, and me were on our way across town to a place with ventilators and crash carts. 

As we drove in a terse silence, I remembered a day from my childhood.  My yearly well-child visit was later in the afternoon, and I knew that I would get the inevitable blood draw finger stick, one of the worst possible things in my five year-old existence.  Trying to prepare myself for the ordeal, I spent all afternoon pinching my finger, imaging the pain and bracing myself for it.  But when the actual stick came, no pinching could match the pain that lanced through my small being.

I've thought about the theoretical loss of my children many times - as any mother does - but that drive reminded me again that nobody is ever prepared for the reality of loss, no matter how many times we have pinched our fingers to try and steel ourselves for the pain. 

Thankfully this was not the time, as Elizabeth is now home safely, sleeping peacefully in her own crib after spending forty-eight hours in the hospital.  The ventilator in her room stayed quietly in the corner, off and silent.  The crash cart was equally untouched.  Instead we we had a very uneventful time, punctuated with nebulizer treatments and visits from the bemused Indian nurses who couldn't figure out why we were in the hospital with such a healthy, happy baby. 

I have always known that God answers prayers.  Too many of my own have been answered very clearly for me to ever doubt that absolute reality.  As we rushed to the hospital, I prayed my own fervent prayers, begging Him to let me keep my baby girl.  Brandon spread the word to his friends and family who also joined with their own prayers for her health.

It would have been easy to dismiss Elizabeth's rapid recovery as a happy circumstance, that she wasn't really that sick in the first place.  Babies recover from sicknesses all the time, and this was just another time like any other.

But I know that this wasn't the case.  I have no doubt that a miracle occurred and Elizabeth was granted healing as result of the many prayers offered up in her behalf.  And I am grateful. 

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Coronavirus and Travel Plans

We haven't made a habit of living in popular tourist destinations for the majority of Brandon's Foreign Service career.  With the exception of Cairo, most people scratch their heads in puzzlement when we tell them where we have lived.  Usually the country name is followed by silence and then a bewildered, "Um, where is that exactly?"  

That's been fine with me; I don't mind living in less-known countries and enjoy the exotic strangeness that comes from living in obscure corners of the world.  Anyone can go to Paris, but hiking in the Tien Shen mountains is something most Americans never do.  

This also means that we haven't had many visitors to these places.  So far my parents have come to see us at every post, but when other people ask us if they should visit, we discourage them.  Most people don't have unlimited travel time and budgets (with the exception of, apparently, my parents), and both are better spent on seeing the bucket list places rather than remote corners of the former Soviet Union.  

We have, however, encouraged friends and family to come and visit us in Uzbekistan.  There are three major Silk Road cities here and all of them have been wonderfully restored and are easy (and cheap) to visit.  The architecture is pretty breathtaking, especially when you've not been around a lot of Islamic- or Persian-style cities.  

My parents visited last spring and spread the word about amazing Uzbekistan.  My brother and his girlfriend were the first to ask if this spring would be a good time to come out.  Good friends who are currently living in London also put in a reservation at Hotel Sherwood, coming a week and a half after my brother left.  While back in the US, I talked my other brother and his wife to also come out this spring.  It was going to be a fun April, finishing up the month with a visit from the mission president and an Area Authority Seventy.

Enter the coronavirus.  We've been watching things unfold since late January as country after country has instituted quarantine and travel restrictions.  When northern Italy shut down, Brandon and I spent one evening filling two shopping carts with extra food, just to be safe.  We also put a big "maybe" over most of April and sat back to watch what would happen next.

When coronavirus made its arrival in the US, there began to be rumors of travel restrictions for Uzbekistan.  No government wants to have a country-wide epidemic on its hands, so restrictions make sense.  I am looking forward to when every country in the world has travel restrictions for every other country in the world.  

This week the restrictions were made official, and the embassy posted guidelines on the consular page:

Travelers who have come from the U.S., regardless of their citizenship, may be subject to medical restraints (self-quarantine) if fewer than 14 days have elapsed since their last visit.  Exceptions: Official and government delegations, as well as service and diplomatic passport holders, airline pilots and crew members, locomotive crews, railroad-related persons, and international truck drivers. 

The same rules apply for travelers, regardless of their citizenship, coming from the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Afghanistan, Japan, France, Germany, Spain, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan within the last 14 days.  Travelers coming directly from the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Italy, and Japan may be subject to quarantine by the Government of Uzbekistan in official locations.

  • Citizens must be kept in their place of residence (house, hotel, hostel, etc.) for 14 days, not be allowed to communicate with people other than family members, and not be allowed to visit public places.
  • Measures to be taken by medical personnel during the home quarantine (14 calendar days): medical examination, body temperature and blood pressure measurement, survey; medical biomaterials may be collected from the nasal-pharyngeal cavity for laboratory diagnostics and other methods as required.
  • Persons with symptoms of acute respiratory infections are to be hospitalized for the purpose of diagnosis and treatment as per clinical guidelines.
  • Upon completion of this self-quarantine (or after discharge from the hospital), the traveler will be interviewed by telephone by a health worker during the period of 10 days.
  • Disciplinary sanctions will be imposed in the event of disciplinary violations by quarantined individuals.

And with that, the "maybe" turned into "definitely not" as my April calendar looked a lot less busy.  

Thankfully, we will be here for another year and a half, so the visits got delayed and not cancelled.  And since all our visitors were using international carriers instead of skinflint US carriers, they can even get refunds.  

But we're still sad that our first attempt at visitors was cancelled.  We were looking forward to showing off fabulous Uzbekistan while spending time with friends and family.  The girls were looking forward to spending time with our friends' children.  I was looking forward to the great company.  

I guess everyone forgot to check the pandemic forecast when they made travel plans.  Next time, we'll all remember to do so.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Elizabeth Update

Elizabeth continues to be a charming baby, and I decided recently that she is enjoyable 23 3/4 hours of the day.  And some days she's just pleasant the entire day.  I'm sure my other babies were just as enjoyable, but perhaps I just have the time to notice Elizabeth.  Or perhaps because she is my last, I'm soaking it all in before it's over.

I love watching her progress through all the stages, from a little lump that does nothing to a baby that is starting to make intentional attempts to do something.  She hasn't figured out how to flip over yet, but has realized that she can kick her mobile and will happily wait in her crib, kicking contentedly, until someone comes to pick her up.  

She is a very cheerful baby, smiling whenever she sees someone, and laughing when she is tickled.  Her favorite tickling spot is her collar bones, safely hidden up under her multiple chins.  I can never get enough of baby laughs; after having my own babies I completely understand Peter Pan's story of how fairies are born.  

Her siblings all adore her and race to go fetch the 'queen Elizabeth' when their sister's nap is over.  Often fights break out over who gets to hold her when Elizabeth is awake, and if I didn't want to hold her I'd never have to.  The children are always devising some new conveyance or throne for their favorite sister.

I love to see Elizabeth every morning when she greets me with her cheerful smile, and sometimes sit and watch her sleep and marvel at her perfect babiness.  Knowing that she is my last is often bittersweet.  I've been told many times before that babies grow up so fast, and have always thought that it was a good thing.  But now that every single day that passes brings an end to my time as a mother of babies, I feel each of those days keenly.  I try not to focus on that too much, but it's hard.  I can never get in enough baby snuggles to last me the rest of my life and soon enough I will only have the memory of them.  

I wouldn't keep her as a baby even if I could because she needs to have her own chance to grow and learn, just as I have had my own.  Sometimes I imagine what she will be like as a teenager, a young adult, a mother like me and can hardly see it in her chubby baby curves.  I imagine myself in my own mother's arms, being cherished as I now cherish.  I didn't imagine that parenting would be a sacrifice in this way, letting your child grow and become their own person when you'd rather keep them as yours forever.

I hope that when I die I can live in my memories in perfect fidelity, and feel her soft cheek against my own, her tiny fists grasping my hair.  I can hold her again as she relaxes into perfect baby sleep, content to be in my arms as all is right with the world.  I can hear her delighted baby chuckle and watch her arms wave in delight as I tickle her tiny sides.  

But for now, I can still enjoy the passing days as they actually happen.  They haven't run out yet and I can still tuck her into the corner of my lap where she is content to stay for now.  And she can stay there as long as she likes.  

Snow Play Saturday

This Saturday we finally made it back up to the mountains.  I like that Uzbekistan has mountains, but they're much less convenient than they were in Tajikistan.  Sledding is a ninety-minute drive away, which makes it less of a spur-of-the-moment activity.  I actually like taking the kids up for a snow play Saturday, but spending three hours driving to sled is less appealing.  So we haven't made it up to the mountains as much as we did in Dushanbe.

It was the third Saturday with 'sledding' written on the calendar.  Our first Saturday was a sledding party with multiple families, but the weather promised us a large dump of snow.  Nobody wanted to brave bad roads in the mountains Uzbekistan, so we delayed the party and of course it was sunny that day.  The next Saturday we decided to go with one other family, but the weather promised us rain, and nobody wants rain while sledding.

This Saturday promised sunny, warm weather.  We made our third date for sledding, with the same family.  Brandon wasn't that sure about going and neither was I, but we said yes when the other family asked if we'd like to go.  But Friday some kids started looking sick, and they ended up cancelling while we were pulling on our snow gear.  Being halfway done, we just went up anyway.

We had found a nice field last winter and decided to return there.  I had worried that it would have been turned into houses, and when we got there it was enclosed with a large concrete wall.  After repeatedly explaining the concept of trespassing to the children ("You can't just climb the wall, or go through a whole.  A wall means it belongs to someone - who doesn't want you there"), we headed back to a spot I had seen earlier.

Our spot ended up being quite nice, close to parking, and far enough up the mountain that nobody else joined us with their four-wheelers, rental tubes, horse rides, or shashlik grills.  Uzbeks are very social and love to hang out with each other in the snow, which attracts all the ride-sellers.  I'm not sure of the correlation between sledding and horseback rides, but there seems to be a strong one.

We did have a hopeful tube owner show up, hoping that we'd rent his gear and a horse owner tried to struggle up the hill to offer his horse, but otherwise we got to have the place to ourselves.  The kids had a great time building snow forts, sledding, making snow graves, and throwing snow balls while Elizabeth hung out in her chair, wondering why we had stuck her in the car and drove for so long just for white cold stuff.  William proved to be a sledding fiend, trudging up the hill with me for ride after ride.

After enough time to give Edwin a crazy sunburn (next time, make sure he sunscreens his entire face), we finally put Elizabeth out of her misery and headed home.  Today I saw my first spring blossoms, so it looks like the sledding season is over for this winter.  Until next time!